More Data Seen Critical to Measuring Coronavirus Impact on Local Justice

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More data from counties around the U.S. can help authorities analyze the impact of COVID-19 on local justice systems, according to Measures for Justice.

“We’re seeing how the absence of testing data is hampering plans to contain the coronavirus, and we’re seeing a lot of confusion as a result,” the group says in its latest newsletter, issued last week.

The Measures for Justice (MFJ) project, which collects comparative data on the operation of local criminal justice systems nationwide has published data on two more states—Arizona and Missouri—and expects to have a total of 20 states represented in its public files by year’s end.

“We’re doubling down on our work to make criminal justice data available and actionable so that when this crisis is over, we’re in a better position to tackle all the same problems—­and the new ones ­the coronavirus has left in its wake,” the newsletter said.

For nearly a decade, MFJ has worked to compile data on a county-by-county basis that allow analysts to examine patterns on how cases move through the system, from arrest to post-conviction actions.

The group’s goal is to “measure every stage of the criminal justice process” across the nation’s more than 3,000 counties.

The work can take considerable time, because there are no consistent national practices for compiling and publishing county-level justice data.

The addition of Arizona and Missouri brings to eight the number of states with most of their counties included in the MFJ data portal.

In the coming months, MFJ plans to add numbers from 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.

States whose data already were published by the group are Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is not expected to delay the work because MFJ has collected the data and is processing it for posting and analysis, says the group’s communications director, Fiona Maazel.

Numbers collected in the newly-released states indicate that criminal justice practices can vary greatly by county.

The project found disparate sentencing rates for drug possession cases across the state, with some counties imposing sentences at more than twice the state average.

On another issue in Missouri, MFJ determined that statewide, nearly 40 percent of defendants convicted of nonviolent felonies who had no convictions in the previous three years were sent to prison.

In one county, Dekalb, nearly 80 percent of such defendants got prison time. In another, Gasconade, the figure was a little over 14 percent.

Measures for Justice did not take a stand on which policy is more effective, but the group says that depending on what kind of crime is involved, “a high number on this measure could indicate a commitment to imposing serious consequences on people convicted of white collar crimes, a punitive approach to lower-level felony crimes, or a combination of the two.”

In Arizona, nearly 70 percent of criminal cases filed statewide resulted in a conviction.

As in Missouri, the total varied considerably by county. In Apache County, 83.5 percent of cases led to a conviction; in Graham County, only 42.6 percent did.

MFJ observes that, “Depending on your perspective, a high conviction rate can imply more public safety, efficient prosecutorial decision-making, or that the system is too punitive.”

The Arizona data also show that nearly 60 percent of felony cases were resolved within 180 days, but one county, Cochise, was way above the state average at 74 percent.

Measures for Justice hopes that compiling and publicizing data like these will make government officials and the general public much more aware of whether their criminal justice systems are operating effectively.

More and better data will be available to MFJ through a new partnership with the St. Louis-based Karpel Foundation, which operates “PROSECUTORbyKarpel,” the most widely used case management software for U.S. prosecutors.

MFJ says the arrangement will allow it to obtain data from hundreds of prosecutor offices to support analyzing figures relating to 17 measures that are designed to track local criminal justice performance.

The measures were vetted by prosecutors from several states and and a committee of the California District Attorneys Association. They will be available on MFJ’s Portal and on any participating prosecutor’s website.

Court data don’t capture information about case before they are filed, but prosecutor data can shed light on things like cases that are not prosecuted, how cases were initiated, and the demographics of crime victims.

Data from prosecutors also can measure how different prosecutors divert cases from the justice system by agreeing not to file charges against some potential defendants as long as they stay out of trouble.

The Crime Report has opened a resource file of stories mapping COVID-19’s impact on the criminal justice system to keep you abreast of fast-moving developments. Updated daily. Check it out here.

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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